After two years of rocky negotiations, the presidents of Russia and Latvia agreed Saturday on an Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal of Russia’s troops from the Baltic nation.
The treaty, subject to ratification by both parliaments, allows the Russian army to operate its early warning radar station in the Latvian town of Skrunda for four more years. It will have 18 months after that to dismantle the facility, an integral part of Russia’s air defense system.
Retired Russian and Soviet officers will be permitted to remain in Latvia with residency permits and social security benefits, but the two nations will set up a fund to help repatriate those wanting to return to Russia.
In Washington, President Clinton hailed the agreement, saying it reflects the “pragmatic approach” of both sides.
If the agreement holds, it will bring Russia within one step of ending what the tiny Baltic nations consider a long, painful military occupation.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin forcibly annexed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1940, and 130,000 troops stayed there under Russian command after the three nations regained independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union in 1991.
The last Russian soldier left Lithuania last August. But 2,300 soldiers remain in Estonia, and negotiations on their pullout have bogged down.
Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis signed the treaty on his first official visit to Russia. President Boris N. Yeltsin welcomed him in the Kremlin and made a point of condemning “Stalinist repressions against autonomous, independent Latvia,” according to Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency.
About 600 Russian soldiers are to stay in Skrunda to operate the radar station. Yeltsin said he expected the remaining 10,000 troops to leave Latvia ahead of schedule.
He said many officers have children and want to get their families settled in Russia well before the school year starts Sept. 1.
Ulmanis told reporters that he hopes the accord will “break the ice of mistrust and hostility that exists in both Latvia and Russia” but was uncertain his Parliament will accept it.
The treaty is certain to meet criticism in Latvia for two reasons.
Ulmanis agreed to a relatively low rent on the radar station--$5 million per year--and got no direct compensation to help support the 22,320 retired Russian officers and their families, who live better than many Latvians.
Speaking to reporters here, Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs said his government accepted a low rent in hopes of getting greater advantages from Russia in a separate agreement, to be signed this month, granting Latvia most-favored-nation trading status.
The issue of officers’ retirement benefits has already met resistance in the Latvian Parliament, which forced Ulmanis to renegotiate the treaty and delay his visit by three weeks.
Neighboring Estonia has set an example by demanding that most retired Russian officers leave that country--an issue that has stalled a troop withdrawal agreement.
A breakthrough came last week when Russian and Latvian negotiators agreed to set up a joint repatriation fund to lure retired Russian officers home. Ulmanis said Sweden had pledged $1 million and the Clinton Administration was considering a $2.5-million contribution.
Ulmanis said he also raised with Yeltsin “the very deep and painful question” of Soviet KGB operations in Latvia and asked for “full information” on Latvians who collaborated with the secret police agency.
Latvia’s chief prosecutor last week announced the discovery of archives purportedly showing that the country’s foreign minister and four lawmakers worked with the KGB. Parliament voted to suspend them from its membership.
Prime Minister Birkavs made it clear that Latvia’s investigations will focus on retired Russian army officers as well, and that any linked to the KGB will get no money to relocate in Russia.